The phrase “Memphis: Cradle of Civilization” is likely to evoke, if anything, images of pharaohs and dog-headed gods. But a recent visit to our own Memphis, the one in Tennessee, has convinced me that this city on the Mississippi is a cradle of our civilization — and crucial to understanding how America became what it is today.
Begin with Elvis. He was born in poverty in Tupelo, Miss., a couple of hours away, but Memphis is his city — the place where he rose into the financial and cultural stratosphere, and where he is now the focus of a memorial palace as impressive as that of any pharaoh who ruled the original Memphis. Graceland is a temple of American culture, documenting with exhibits and films the life of the figure who was most central to America’s cultural transformation in the last century. He was important in a strictly creative sense, in that he wrote and performed some music that thrilled people in his time and endures today. But his centrality was more broadly cultural: He was the intersection point where the old, white-dominated America of flinty Scots-Irish settlers gave way to the multiracial and multicultural society we now inhabit.